April 26, 2002

Aga Khan's 24m museum bid gives hospital nowhere to grow

By Daniel McGrory

THE Aga Khan has made a bid for one of the most desirable sites in London on which to build an Islamic cultural centre. But his offer of 24 million for the Thames-side site flies in the face of plans by one of the country's top teaching hospitals to expand there: it can only afford 12 million.

Consultants at Guy's and St Thomas's Hospital NHS Trust, which has prepared the counterbid, say that they will chain themselves to the railings in protest if the sale to the Aga Khan goes ahead.

The 1.81-acre triangle of land next to St Thomas's Hospital, which boasts a 150-yard frontage onto the river opposite the Houses of Parliament, is owned by King's College London. Private negotiations have been going on for six months between the Aga Khan and the college, which acquired the site in 1998 in a complicated merger deal involving NHS trusts in London.

The Aga Khan, whose offer is twice the value put on the land, wants to build the biggest Islamic museum and cultural centre in the English speaking world on the site. But the hospitals' trust wants to put a school of nursing and a chemical incident unit, among other facilities, on the site.

At the moment it is essentially disused, although one building houses part of the library for St Thomas's medical school, and there are various outbuildings. Doctors are aghast that the site, which was part of St Thomas's for more than a century, should be allowed to leave the hands of the NHS and have appealed to ministers to support them.

Downing Street has asked to see details of the Aga Khan's proposals. Alan Milburn, the Health Secretary, also knows about the rival bids, but neither his department nor No 10 has the power to stop the sale.

The battle over the land comes at a sensitive time, with the Government stressing the need for expansion of the NHS. Ministers will also want to avoid a public scrap, with doctors and nurses leading embarrassing public protests.

Professor Kevin Burnand, professor of vascular surgery at St Thomas's, said: "It would be a disaster for us and the NHS if this land was lost. I and many of my colleagues would chain ourselves to the railings in protest.

"The academic status of St Thomas's relies on expanding such a site for our library and other vital facilities that London needs."

The Board of the Guy's and St Thomas's Trust met this week and unanimously opposed the sale to "any outside party".Senior figures at the trust said that their charitable foundation was willing to pay 12 million for the land and immediately to spend 10 million on refurbishment, but that it could not hope to beat the Aga Khan in a bidding war.

They are angry that despite a joint working party with Kings College on what to do with site, they were allegedly kept in the dark when the Aga Khan's bid was first made.

Dr Jonathan Michael, chief executive of the trust, said in a letter to health chiefs seen by The Times that "the Board is disturbed that, at a time when there is a proposal that has the academic and organisational support of both Kings College London and the Trust, the possible sale of this site to a third party for a hugely inflated cash sum is being considered.

"The Board believes there would be massive local and national opposition if this historically and strategically precious site were to be sold away from the public sector to a well endowed outside buyer for a different use."

Kate Hoey, the Labour MP for Vauxhall, said: "The local community will be up in arms about this sale as they want to see it maintained for the health service for the future."

The 40-strong council of Kings College is due to decide on the future of Block 9, as the site is known, on May 8. Senior college sources say that the council is "split down the middle" over the Aga Khan's bid.

Professor Sir Graeme Catto, the vice-principal, supports "keeping it in the family" and developing the site for NHS use. Sir Graeme, who is also president of the General Medical Council, said: "This site is so unique it is worth what anybody is prepared to pay for it, but the location lends itself to development with Guy's and St Thomas's."

The chairman of the Kings College board, Baroness Rawlings, said last night: "Every academic institution has to make the best of its resources and balance its books and Block 9 is virtually empty. We have been asking Guy's and St Thomas's for ages to suggest their detailed plans for the site."

She pointed out that the Aga Khan's plan proposes to share research facilities with the hospital for pioneering work on Aids and diabetes.

Ian Cheyne, director of private affairs for the Aga Khan, said: "We believe this project would benefit London and compliment Guy's and St Thomas's. We are proposing to give the capital a new museum for nothing, housing the largest Islamic collection in the English-speaking world.

"There are tremendous opportunities for collaboration with the NHS trust on research work on Aids and diabetes, so it would be perfect for us to be next to one of the world's main teaching hospitals."

Mr Cheyne said that it was impossible to put an accurate figure on what the project, which will take up to five years to complete, would cost.

The valuation of 12 million for such a unique site is because of restrictions on its use. No purchaser would be allowed to build shops, flats or any commercial premises.

Ministers are keen to see the Aga Khan find a suitable location in the capital. Previously he failed to buy the site of Royal Army Medical College on the opposite side of the river, next to the Tate Gallery, which went to the Chelsea College of Art. If the Aga Khan, who is the spiritual head of 20 million Ismaeli Muslims, is rebuffed again in his search for a London site, he may decide to abandon Britain and look elsewhere.

The detailed offer from the Aga Khan Development Network proposes 24 million for the freehold of Block 9. If Kings College prefers a long lease - to be not less than 150 years - the offer drops by 2 million.